Peter Ueberroth and Judy Olian

September 06, 2011

By Paul Feinberg

Peter V. Ueberroth has enjoyed a long, varied and prosperous career as a businessman - a moniker he uses to describe himself with an emphatic degree of pride. He first made his mark in the world of travel by founding First Travel Corporation in 1962; by the time he sold the company, it was the second-largest travel company in the world. In 1980, he became president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, where he led an organization that transformed the modern Olympics movement. This brought him national recognition as Time named him their Man of the Year in 1984. Ueberroth followed the Olympics with a stint as commissioner of Major League Baseball. Today, he is managing partner of Contrarian Group and said, of all his accomplishments, he's most proud of the acquisition of the famed Pebble Beach golf course and resort.

In recognition of his accomplishments as a business leader, UCLA Anderson bestowed the John Wooden Global Leadership Award upon Ueberroth in a gala held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Ueberroth feels close to the UCLA community, as the campus served as one of the Olympic Villages in 1984 and the university has recognized that relationship by naming a Le Conte Avenue structure the Ueberroth Building. During his visit to UCLA Anderson, Ueberroth sat down to discuss his approach to leadership.

How would you describe your leadership style and how would your subordinates describe it?

I'm a pretty good selector of quality people with exceptional skills and am not afraid to seek out brighter people, more skilled in many ways than I am. Then I have to earn the right to be a leader.

The people I work with - emphasizing "work with" since I don't have superiors and inferiors - but those people would say that I'm demanding but fair, impatient and ask more questions than most. I'm management intensive with an overactive curiosity.

Is there anyone you consider your mentor?

I can recognize leadership and am very willing to learn from others. There have been many mentors ranging from the people closest to me - obviously, my wife, Ginny, is one - to some people that are nearly strangers. You can learn something from everybody. But I think there are some who just exude great skills and great minds, and at the top of that list, is John Wooden.

When you ask him a question and he gives you an answer, it's worth a million dollars a minute, because he is a great thinker. I don't use the past tense when talking about John Wooden, because all the things that he's done, the Pyramid of Success and the like, live on. One of the reasons that I'm accepting this award, the main reason that I'm accepting this award, is the hope that UCLA will take the Wooden Award to new heights over the next decade.

You were an athlete, a water polo player at San Jose State who was invited to the Olympic trials, before you became a businessman. Are there any lessons from your athletic life that translate to business?

I think that most athletes learn a lot of life lessons through competition. You win; you lose. You learn from all of that. John Wooden exemplified the fact that everything you practice you learn. You learn that being a teammate is more valuable than your own play. Those lessons are all transferable to business, to family and to all the rest.

Did you have a close relationship with Coach Wooden?

The answer to that question is "no." It wasn't a close relationship. He was open to me and encouraged me to come to him if we had issues to discuss, especially during the time of preparations for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He felt he might be someone who could help, and he recognized that we would face a lot of challenges. He wasn't asking for that role; it was the reverse. I asked if we could go to him if we were stuck and couldn't figure something out. Privately, without attribution, I did that half a dozen times.

We're wondering why you named your company the Contrarian Group.

When we named it, "contrarian" wasn't a word in the dictionary. The other words were in there, like "contrary," but "contrarian" wasn't in the dictionary in the late 80s when we named the company. It is now. What it means to those of us who work there is this: When everyone is running in one direction, you want to do that, too, but you also want to give a solid look at going in the opposite direction. When the momentum swings one way, you need to look at what would happen if it goes the other way or if you could make things go the other way. You need to ask: What would be the advantage in business from going in the opposite direction?

You've had so many successes. Are there any things you've learned from failure?

I learned not to jump into a rescue attempt without knowledge. I had some friends that invested in an airline in the late 80s. I jumped in to try and help and was no help at all. The airline didn't go bankrupt; fortunately, it was sold. Two owners later, it went bankrupt, and it's been bankrupt a couple of times. But now, it seems to be thriving. Smarter people than I were able to make that one work.

What motivated you and your partners to buy the Pebble Beach golf course and resort from the Japanese group that owned it at the time?

There are some places in the United States and in the world that deserve to be kept intact for generation after generation. When I learned that the Japanese ownership wanted to sell the property, I contacted my partner, Dick Ferris, who had been chairman of United Airlines and a lifelong friend. We, then, approached Bill Perocchi about buying the Pebble Beach property. I asked Clint Eastwood, who has been a friend for a lot of years, if he would like to participate, and Dick asked Arnold Palmer to join us. It's been a terrific partnership.

Ueberroth and his partners invited all the competing purchase groups to invest along with them, and he said most of them have. He and his partners are committed to not sell Pebble Beach or break it up by selling off different pieces. He explained why.

We are dedicated to the idea that your great, great grandchildren will be able to visit Pebble Beach. It's a totally public golf course. All four of our courses are open to the public, and our accommodations, including the 17 Mile Drive that is under our stewardship, will be for many generations. That's a good feeling.

Any plans to retire?

Our offices are kind of like a college campus in a rural setting. Imagine having a bunch of bright people sitting around with you, looking at the news of the day and discussing new ideas. Imagine being able to invest in young people who have new ideas and new products. There's nothing better; that's fun.

I never intend to retire. It is my belief that you should always have some challenges. That keeps you young. It keeps you healthy, and without that, I'd be bored to tears.

I can understand retiring if people want to retire, but my feeling is that people are going to be happier if they have a challenge ahead of them all the time. If they retire, then maybe they'll decide to commit to building a new wing on the hospital so that they have risk. I think you want to have risk. I think risk promotes vitality.

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